Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Learning Lyrics: To Sing or Not to Sing?

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Learning Lyrics: To Sing or Not to Sing?

Article excerpt

According to common practice and oral tradition, learning verbal materials through song should facilitate word recall. In the present study, we provide evidence against this belief. In Experiment 1, 36 university students, half of them musicians, learned an unfamiliar song in three conditions. In the sung-sung condition, the song to be learned was sung, and the response was sung too. In the sung-spoken condition, the response was spoken. In the divided-spoken condition, the presented lyrics (accompanied by music) and the response were both spoken. Superior word recall in the sung-sung condition was predicted. However, fewer words were recalled when singing than when speaking. Furthermore, the mode of presentation, whether sung or spoken, had no influence on lyric recall, in either short- or long-term recall. In Experiment 2, singing was assessed with and without words. Altogether, the results indicate that the text and the melody of a song have separate representations in memory, making singing a dual task to perform, at least in the first steps of learning. Interestingly, musical training had little impact on performance, suggesting that vocal learning is a basic and widespread skill.

The notion that music may serve as a mnemonic technique for learning verbal material has a long history. Minstrels transmitted stories through songs (Calvert & Tart, 1993; Rubin, 1995), and this practice is still influential today. Among the most familiar experiences of musical learning are jingles for brand names and the alphabet song children learn. Other examples that have been described consist of learning the laws of physics through karaoke (Dickson & Grant, 2003) and learning English as a second language via songs (Medina, 1993). The goal of the present study was to contribute to the understanding of this phenomenon from both empirical and theoretical perspectives.

Indeed, it is not obvious why music should facilitate word recall, since there is more to learn in a song than in a text. To our surprise, this simple notion has not been properly assessed. Song learning is typically assessed through written recall (Kilgour, Jakobson, & Cuddy, 2000; McElhinney & Annett, 1996; Wallace, 1994). This change in format between perception and performance introduces a bias in word recall in favor of the spoken version, because extracting words from the sung version requires filtering out the music component. Moreover, written recall requires participants to perform a task that is not familiar to them. Lyrics are typically learned to be sung, not to be written. Thus, a putative advantage of singing over reciting words should be assessed with a vocal response. To our knowledge, this procedure has been used only once (Jellison & Miller, 1982), and the results were negative: Music was found to interfere with digit recall and had no effect on word recall. However, in this experiment the words were unrelated and probably were not optimally aligned to the music, hence introducing an additional difficulty. Thus, to properly test the idea that music may serve as a mnemotechnique for recalling words, one must not only examine oral responses, but also select material in which the words are appropriately set to the music (Gingold & Abravanel, 1987); in short, one must use real songs. This was done in the present study.

Although an adequate test of the idea that music facilitates text recall requires consideration of both input and output factors, the influence of music on word recall starts at the encoding stage. Thus, all prior studies that used written recall but looked at input factors may shed light on the idea that sung words are easier to encode than spoken words. Support for this notion is mixed. In several studies, participants recalled as many sung as spoken words (Gingold & Abravanel, 1987; Wolfe & Horn, 1993) or even did worse on sung material (Calvert & Billingsley, 1998). Yet, in many other studies, an advantage of sung over spoken presentation has been shown (Calvert & Tart, 1993; Chazin & Neuschatz, 1990; Kilgour et al. …

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